Friday, June 25, 2010

Unbearable Lightness of Netrebko and Alagna

The death scene from Gounod's Roméo and Juliette in the 2007 Met production presented an idealized view of death in the 19th century.

In this operatic death scene there is a social, even sexual, feel so important that Gounod altered the timing of events in Shakespeare--so that Juliette awakens before Roméo has even felt the affects of poison--so that the two lovers can share death simultaneously.

The music attracts toward E-flat major as Juliette awakens, symbol of resurrection, from a sleep perceived as death. Their duet speaks of escape, of fleeing, of running without goal toward happiness: it is the 19th century voicing of the Springsteen song "Born to Run."

The music turns as the poison sets in on Roméo and as Juliette discovers that he will die. We settle on G major. It is here that Roméo expresses the idea that their love will transcend death. "Blessed by the angels, sings Alagna, "it is absorbed in the infinite as a flood of light."

There is an episode of reminiscence, powerful because it relates to the sexual experience of the lovers on their wedding night--the music that opens Act IV. During that scene there is debate as to whether the bird that they hear is the lark (herald of the morn) or the nightingale (confidant of love). Their hope was that the sound was the nightingale (who sings only at night), which would mean that they still had time together. It was the lark. Now in death Roméo inverts the experience: the night he is about to enter is death, and the nightingale that he imagines is a symbol that time has run out.

The music and melody return from Act IV.

In the "Unbearable Lightness of Being," Milan Kundera writes about the way "human lives are composed:"

"They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life...Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress." (p.52)

The lark and nightingale in Gounod are able to become part of a composition, literally, through the magic of opera.

Later in the novel Kundera compares the two sets of primary lovers in his novel. "While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its openings bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs, but if they meet when they are older, their musical compositions are more of less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them." (p.88-89)

The sense of unison in Gounod is simultaneity of youth, sexuality, and a love that transcends mortality.

The right singers in the right production can make the unfolding of this Kunderian "musical composition" strangely inevitable and natural.

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